Rereading oneself

Spinning My Wheels

Procrastination: Take Three.

photo by Gregory Phillips

photo by Gregory Phillips

Failing to progress on my summer projects, I reread the work where I left it last year. Although rereading literature can be an amazing and even exhilarating experience, rereading oneself is, well, not. As I started thinking that rereading one’s own work would be my theme for the week (I’m already behind on my posting schedule) I had a feeling that Roland Barthes had already nailed the experience. Indeed, I find in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (rereading him is always a treat), an entry that captures my sense of activity with no achievement. This entry is called “La Papillonne” (in the English translation), which is to say butterfly―in the feminine. I set aside the fact that Barthes is a man, a gay French man, and a world-famous writer nicely settled in his country house for a summer of leisure outside the city. Oh, and let me set the stage: the previous entry Doxa/Paradoxa ends with a sigh of weariness: “Where to go next? That is where I am now.”

Here’s RB:

Crazy, the power of distraction a man has who is bored, intimidated, or embarrassed by his work (my emphasis): working in the country (at what? at rereading myself, alas! [my emphasis, Barthes’s parenthesis]), here is the list of distractions I incur every five minutes: spray a mosquito, cut my nails, eat a plum, take a piss, check the faucet to see if the water is still muddy (there was a breakdown in the plumbing today), go to the drugstore, walk down to the garden to see how many nectarines have ripened on the tree, look at the radio-program listings, rig up a stand to hold my papers, etc.: I am cruising (emphasis, Roland Barthes).

And all that before email.

What captivates me is less the list of potentially infinite distractions (we all can imagine our own), as much as the notion that rereading one’s work is somehow inherently embarrassing. Why is it embarrassing to reread one’s work? Barthes almost shrugs it off with his “alas,” but that’s just what interests me. And know I’m not alone. Still, it’s not as if one was rereading juvenilia. No, just yesterday’s prose.

I look at what I take to be the last draft of a piece I was working on (of course reading through drafts to figure out which is the latest one is a great distraction in itself) about friendship and loss. I see some nice lines. But I also see paragraphs lacking transitions, sentences bordering on cliché, fudged emotion, and a confused relationship to potential readers. Ew. No wonder I abandoned the essay. Still I saved it for future reworking and I’m not all that different from the author circa 2013.

So, onward into the abyss.

Between Procrastination and Productivity

The semester is almost over. Next week is my last class. Soon, my academic calendar will clear and…And what? Which of the many pieces of unfinished writing will I drag out of my file drawer and set out to finish, finish or, terrible thought, discard as beyond repair. For now I have a delicious feeling of possibility.

One of my side-bar activities for the past couple of years has been graphic cartooning. Or rather, attempts to create graphic representations that others might also enjoy. It’s hard because I have no natural talent. I’m not one of those people who have been drawing since childhood. Because I lack the requisite skills to move past doodling, I’ve worked periodically with a drawing teacher. But this winter, snowed under with work, I stopped lessons and drawing altogether.

To restart my artistic endeavors I went to a show last week with the artist Jen Waters, my most recent teacher, to see the paintings, mainly self-portraits, by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, at PS1.

photoI had been stunned by the self-portrait that appeared in the Times, equally by the fact that I had never heard of her, that she was 94 years old, and, as I felt strongly when I saw the scope of the work, feminist.

As I walked through the rooms of paintings with Jen and her adorable infant daughter in a stroller, we talked about my resuming lessons. We talked about this sense of excitement, between, as she said, procrastination and productivity. I’ve been trying to create order in my study, stem the overflow of shmattes in my closets, cull the multiple hair products in my shower, in a word, make room for the new.

Will I? Will I stop shopping at Muji for more and more ingenious Lucite storage boxes?

What if none of the work that in memory seemed so promising pans out? What if, despite more lessons, my artwork still remains hopelessly primitive? It’s the desire to postpone that disappointment that keeps me finding ever more tasks of preparation before settling down to confront the reality of the pages that fill my drawers. Sometimes I want that moment never to come. It’s so much more enjoyable just to contemplate what I might one day do.

P.S. As I was finishing this post I went to check the article that had alerted me to Lassnig,
only to discover in a new article that she had died a few days before we went to the museum.

I am glad I didn’t know this when I looked at the paintings. But at the same time this reminds me that in life, especially for me at my age, what matters most, I should remember, is the work one has left behind. Maybe all work―though I don’t consider my writing art–a footnote if I’m lucky―is no more than an attempt to cheat death.

There’s still time to see the show.